I’ve been terrible at sticking to lots of things recently, my daily morning meditation being one of them (blogging being another, as you may have noticed over the past few months). This isn’t just bad for my stress levels (and believe me, they have been high), but for my immune system too.
Mindfulness is good for your immune system
A recent study reported that the well-known meditation app Headspace was effective at reducing stress levels among workers (which you would hope and expect) but also at reducing the expression of genes that code for proteins which drive inflammation (for a reminder of what this means, have a look at this older post). Remember that what we want from our immune system is balance – we want it to be strong and active when we need to fight an infection, but we don’t want unnecessary or even chronic inflammation (which we know stress causes).
What I think is even more interesting is that the study compared the effects of Headspace with a problem-solving app; although both were effective at reducing stress, only Headspace had any effects on inflammatory gene expression. To me, this suggests that not all stress-busting solutions are created equal – there is something about mindfulness (and probably mind–body practices, which incorporate mindfulness) that taps into a different molecular pathway which tackle inflammation.
MBSR may maintain a healthy immune system in old age and beyond
Similar findings have been observed with mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, an 8-week programme that is delivered in a group setting. While it is rigid in nature, the nice thing about it is that it has a clear structure and is always the same no matter where you learn it, which makes it much easier to study (than, say, yoga) and much easier to deliver in a clinically meaningful way.
This older study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, was effective at reducing stress and lowering the levels of inflammatory molecules in the blood. Interestingly, MBSR was compared with the health enhancement programme (HEP; my understanding is that this is primarily an educational programme) – while both were effective at reducing stress, only MBSR reduced inflammation.
A more recent study compared the effects of MBSR and HEP among lonely older adults on the immune response; this is especially interesting because we know that immune function declines with age, and loneliness can also have a detrimental effect. Here, participants who had received MBSR had a more effective immune response 3 months after the programme started than participants who had received HEP.
It doesn’t have to be a big commitment to be effective
A while back I wrote about a study that found immune-beneficial effects for meditation. While the study was cool (and published in a prestigious journal), the meditation was pretty extreme and not one that most people would adopt.
By contrast, MBSR is a really simple programme that doesn’t demand more than 10–20 minutes a day of its participants. Headspace is even less demanding in that all meditations are guided on the app. I doesn’t take a lot to self-care.
I’ve been resisting using something like Headspace because I should know how to meditate on my own and I guide other people through meditation all the time (those are the voices in my head). But after reading these studies and tracking my poor record over the past few months, I think it’s exactly what I need.